Thomas Smith remembered as lighthouse approaches 225th anniversary

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Ahead of the 225th anniversary of Kinnaird Head’s lighthouse, Fraserburgh’s Museum of Scottish Lighthouses has told the story of lighthouse engineer Thomas Smith to the Fraserburgh Herald.

Michael Strachan, lighthouse assistant at the museum, picks up the story.

On December 1, 1787, the first lighthouse to be established by the Northern Lighthouse Board was lit at Kinnaird Head. This event saw the birth of a service which was to illuminate the coast of Scotland, making her treacherous seas more passible.

As well as this, it saw the beginnings of an extraordinary family of engineers who were to dominate the lighthouse service for the next 150 years – the Lighthouse Stevensons.

Although the Stevenson’s have become famous for their daring and near impossible feats of engineering, the founder of this family - the man who built the first light at Kinnaird Head - is often left in the shadow of his successors: the extraordinary Thomas Smith.

Thomas Smith never built a Bell Rock or a Skerryvore, but the story of how he came to be commissioned to build Scotland’s first lighthouses is fascinating in itself. The son of a ship owner, Smith was born into the bustling whaling port of Dundee.

Following his father’s death, Smith took up an apprenticeship as a metal worker with Cairns of Dundee before starting a business in making railings, quickly expanding to lamp making.

Moving to Edinburgh in his thirties, he was earning a comfortable wage providing lights to the middle classes, his business taking off when he became the manufacturer of street lamps to Edinburgh Town Council.

Although Smith had now achieved success – and with it financial stability – he retained a restless ambition.

With this restlessness, in 1786 he presented his parabolic reflector to the Trustees for Manufacturers in Scotland with a view to improving coastal navigation. The Trustees agreed to trial Smith’s reflectors on the Firth of Forth.

The parabolic reflector was able to produce a light of great intensity which would far surpass the visibility of the old coal beacons which had previously been used for coastal navigation in Scotland.

Not only did Smith’s reflector impress the Trustees of Manufacture, it also caught the eye of the Northern Lighthouse Trustees.

The Northern Lighthouse Trustees was set up by Act of Parliament in August 1786, tasked with building four lighthouses to illuminate Scotland’s perilous coast.

Their remit was – at first – to build four lighthouses on some of Scotland’s most infamous coastal routes.

The Trustees first bought the land on which they intended to build their lighthouses, before quickly moving to tender contracts for the construction of the towers.

The response was underwhelming with many engineers being put off by the remoteness of the sites, some of which were located on uninhabited islands with no available workforce.

The Board did, however, receive positive correspondence in early 1787 from Ezekiel Walker – a notable English lighthouse engineer. Although he was unwilling to build all four lighthouses, he offered to build the first for a fee. Alternatively, for 50 guineas he offered to instruct a person of the Board’s choosing in the art of lighthouse construction.

The Board chose the latter option and, being impressed with Smith’s reflector, chose to send him.

Thomas Smith spent no more than two months receiving his initial training from Ezekiel Walker.

He returned to Edinburgh in March, 1787, and a month later he was sent to Fraserburgh to begin construction on the first light on top of Kinnaird Head Castle.

The Lighthouse Museum will celebrate the 225th anniversary of Thomas Smith’s lighthouse on December 1.

For more information, visit the Lighthouse Museum at www.lighthousemuseum.org.uk.